Tag Archives: English syntax

I only wanted to explain this

This week is a bit of a double header for me: two articles published in different places at the same time. Yesterday I posted a link to my latest article on TheWeek.com; today I’m posting (in its entirely) my latest article on the Editors’ Association of Canada’s national blog, The Editors’ Weekly.

Adverbs are a problematic and much-maligned class of words. Linguists often have trouble explaining exactly why they go where they go. Some sorts of adverbs are baselessly despised (hopefully, people will eventually get over those hangups, but I’m not hopeful). Some people think adverbs should be excised from writing altogether.

I’d like to cover all the misconceptions relating to adverbs, but that would make for very long reading. So today, I’m only going to talk about the placement of one specific adverb.

Those of you who read that and thought, “That’s bad grammar — it should be ‘I’m going to talk only about’ or ‘I’m going to talk about only,’ ” raise your hands.

Hands raised? Keep them there. As long as they’re raised they won’t be causing any trouble.

Oh, there’s no mistake in thinking that careful placement of only has much to recommend it. The mistake is in thinking that putting it in the default position, right before the main verb, is an error unless it’s limiting the main verb specifically.

Let’s look at an example sentence:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

Without context, all you know is that baking three cakes is the full scope of what I wanted. You don’t know if the thrust of it is “I was not happy about baking the fourth one” or “I didn’t want to have to decorate them” or “I had no desire to bake three pies too.”

But do you know what the supposed only correct interpretation of that is? It’s that I only wanted to bake the cakes — I didn’t actually do it.

Does that seem odd? It should. It’s a made-up rule with no correspondence to reality. As Matt Gordon recently said on Twitter, quoting a student paper he was marking, “If ‘this grammatical distinction has confused writers for centuries,’ maybe it’s those trying to impose the distinction who are confused.”

In truth, the only way you can make that only about wanted is to emphasize wanted, or to phrase it differently. That position is the default position for only regardless of what aspect of the action it is limiting. But the rule-thumpers insist that you must move the only right next to what it limits:

I wanted only to bake three cakes.

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

I wanted to bake three only cakes.

Ah, wait, the last one isn’t even usable. You have to do this:

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

But that blows the “rule” right away. If you can do that, you can do this:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

You can do likewise for the other restrictions:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

The fact that we can — and do — shift the emphasis like that without moving the only is proof that this is a standard feature of English grammar, and that the word feels natural in the default position and can work there quite well. Anyone who tells you that “I only wanted to bake three cakes” is wrong and must be “I wanted only to bake three cakes” has not correctly analyzed the syntax of the sentence. He or she also has a tin ear, and yet thinks himself or herself a better writer than the many respected authors throughout the history of English who have used only in the “wrong” way.

This is not to say that you can only put only before the main verb — or, if you prefer, it’s not to say that you can put only only before the main verb. Its mobility gives you a very good tool for clarifying the meaning. But the availability of the default position gives you a tool for adjusting the rhythm and the naturalness of the sentence when the meaning is clear anyway. Why limit your toolkit unnecessarily?

Topics, we front them

Featured on The Editors’ Weekly, blog of the Editors’ Association of Canada

English is normally a subject-verb-object kind of language, but there are some interesting exceptions, especially in casual contexts. Consider examples such as the following:

Poodles, we walk them. Labradors, they walk us.

Chickens we have; roads, not so much.

Not one of the clauses above follows standard English sentence order, and yet we understand them. Of the four clauses, the first is object, subject-verb-object (pronoun); the second is subject, subject (pronoun)-verb-object; the third is object-subject-verb; and the fourth is object, adverb – no subject or verb overtly expressed at all. All four are examples of topic fronting, sometimes called left dislocation. (Note that we normally use a comma to set off the topic when it is followed by a complete clause or an elliptical statement, but not usually when the sentence is not syntactically complete without it.)

So why do we depart from our usual syntactic structure? We do it to maintain our preferred information structure. When we communicate information, we usually prefer to introduce a topic and then comment on it with new information. This can be especially useful when we are contrasting two topics. We don’t have to do it; we could rewrite the above sentences as follows:

We walk poodles. Labradors walk us.

We have chickens; we don’t have roads to nearly the same extent.

The first example works well as rewritten, though it loses its folksy feel; it also loses the parallelism of topics, but it highlights the inversion, which has its own effect. The second really, um, fails to cross the road. And even in a structure such as the first, you get poorer results if you can’t make a useful inversion:

Shirts, we mend them. Shorts, we toss them.

We mend shirts. We toss shorts.

You can see it loses some of the contrast effect. In speech you can emphasize the topic structure using intonation; in print that option is not as available.

Now look at the preceding sentence (“In speech…”): it contrasts the adverbial prepositional phrases thematically by moving them from the end to the beginning of their clauses – and no one would object to it. So why does it seem somehow incorrect to do it with nouns?

It’s not because it’s some new error, or a structure borrowed from another language (though some languages do normally introduce topics first, regardless of syntactic role). In fact, as Mark Liberman has discussed on Language Log, left dislocation has existed in English as long as there has been an English for it to exist in.

What has happened is that it has fallen out of use in recent centuries. Like some other formerly standard things, such as double negatives, double superlatives, use of ain’t, pronunciation of –ing as –in, and use of ’em in place of them, it has come to be seen as nonstandard, especially when there is also a pronoun filling the same role – we can sometimes get away with it as poetic when there is no pronoun:

Parsley we put on the plate, sage we leave on the plain, rosemary and thyme we drop in the pot.

The nonstandard air of left dislocation gives a useful means of making your text seem casual or colloquial – as well as keeping a nice clear parallelism. On the other hand, if you need to seem more formally correct, you still have a means of putting it in front acceptably: just turn the parallel nouns into parallel prepositional phrases.

With poodles, we walk them; with Labradors, they walk us.

Between you and I, could you take a picture of my friends and I?

My latest article for TheWeek.com deals with a popular issue: pronouns in compound objects (the things in my title, above, that may have your teeth grinding). I talk about not just the rule but why so many people find it so hard to stick to it. The article is

‘You and I’ vs. ‘You and me’

In the past couple of days, I’ve also added a couple of longer posts on grammar. One of them tears to bits a web page of grammar advice: Why it’s best to leave grammar advice to experts. The other does a detailed dismantling and analysis of a potentially confusing sentence from a recent award-winning book: A little Hellgoing sentence mechanical deconstruction.

A little Hellgoing sentence mechanical deconstruction

In Lynn Coady’s Giller-Prize-winning book Hellgoing, one of my editorial colleagues has spotted the following sentence:

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

Does that look quite right? Are you not quite sure? It’s the sort of sentence that you might not think much about unless you stop and look at it, but if you do stop and look at it it might start to drive you a little crazy.

So let’s go into this little Hell and take apart this sentence and see how it works.

Core subjects and verbs:

She tried . . . but she wasn’t succeeding.

Tried what?

…tried not to stare…

Not to stare at whom?

…not to stare at Marco…

I’ll abbreviate “She tried not to stare at Marco” as STNSM. It’s syntactically fine, I think we can agree.

Now: when?

STNSM while he spoke…

OK, spoke to whom?

…he spoke to X

where whoever X was, he was speaking to him.

So X was the person he was speaking to. Whoever that was.

Now here is how that plays out in that bit of the sentence. We need a relativizer:

…he spoke to {the person} {[relativizer] he was speaking to him}

What happens is that {the person} is replaced by the whole {[relativizer] he was speaking to him}.

The relativizer is “whoever” or, as the case may be, “whomever”:

…he spoke to {whoever {he was speaking to [him]}}

The “him” at the end moves up and merges with the relativizer, giving it accusative case (i.e., making it the object) (see the bottom of this post for more on this):

…he spoke to {whoever [+him] he was speaking to}

…he spoke to {whomever he was speaking to}

That’s where the confusion happens. The raising and merging into “whomever” is something that can confuse just about anyone until they learn about the underlying movements.

It could have been

…he spoke to the person to whom he was speaking

Then “the person” stays put and it happens this way:

…he spoke to {the person} [relativizer] he was speaking to {him}

The relativizer would become just “whom”, moved up from the end:

…he spoke to {the person} [whom] he was speaking to

But the “to” typically follows it up in this case:

…he spoke to {the person} [to whom] he was speaking

Notice there are two “to”s in both versions.

So let’s look at the whole sentence again and match the parts:

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

What are the verbs?

tried … (not) to stare … spoke (to) … was … speaking (to) … wasn’t … succeeding

The conjugated verbs have subjects:

She tried … he spoke … he was … she wasn’t

Let’s add the complements:

She tried not to stare

to stare at Marco

he spoke to whomever

whomever he was speaking to [him]

she wasn’t succeeding

There are also the conjunctions “while” and “but”, and that makes the whole thing.

She tried not to stare at Marco while he spoke to whomever he was speaking to, but she wasn’t succeeding.

So there are actually no surplus words. Each verb “speaking” requires a “to”: “spoke to” and “was speaking to”. Formal English often frowns on stranding the preposition at the end, but it’s always been an available feature of English; indeed, it requires less syntactic movement. Raising the preposition with its complement is a funny thing to do from a syntactic perspective, and linguists call it “pied piping” because it’s as though the object is a pied piper getting the preposition to come dancing along with it.

Most of that is of course rather complex and more than the average person is inclined to want to know. But editors aren’t average persons, so I have put it here for your enjoyment.

Now, here’s the bit more about the “whoever” becoming “whomever”: The reason “whoever” is “whomever” is because it’s merged with the “him”. The entire relative clause is the object, and the case doesn’t penetrate inside it. Here’s proof:

He looked at whoever was speaking to him.

It would not be correct to say “whomever was speaking to him” because the “was” requires a subject, and that is “whoever.”

As it happens, I talk about how case assignment doesn’t automatically percolate into phrases in my latest article on TheWeek.com, “‘You and I’ vs. ‘You and me’.”

Incomplete sentences? Sure! Why not?

My latest article for TheWeek.com is up, and it’s on the oft-maligned “sentence fragments”:

It’s totally okay to write incomplete sentences

A few readers have pointed out, as I rather thought someone might, that Shakespeare isn’t really the best example. This is true, but I needed an example that I could be confident readers would be familiar with and would not dismiss as too modern, and I also had a length limit. So there it is. The compromises always get you in the end.

You can also see this article on Salon.com, and I don’t even know where else.

One of the best poem

Here’s another poem from Songs of Love and Grammar, which I present today to fix in mind a problem construction often encountered.

The one

I’m dating a girl who likes moderation
but sometimes praises without reservation.
She has a cute way to show you your place:
she starts off partway, then slips you the ace.

I cooked her some dinner on our first date.
“That’s one of the best meal I ever ate!”
She said that. One best! A class of one!
Such flattery! And we’d just begun.

We went to a movie – the choice was clear:
“It’s one of the best film of the year,”
she said. “On that, the critics agree.”
(They’d all gone for this one? That’s news to me!)

As we walked back, the weather was just sublime:
“It’s one of the nicest night in quite a time.”
It was clear in all that she had to say
that she wanted to take things all the way.

At evening’s end, she gave me my throne:
“one of the best lover I’ve ever known.”
“Lover,” not “lovers” – now, how do you do:
on the list of the best, there’s no number two!

It looks like the matter is when, not whether,
we’ll be vowing to share the future together.
Her level of commitment is plain to see:
“You’re one of the only guy for me.”

This one is similar to the false concord issue, and it’s a very common
thing to see. The analytically “correct” way to put something like this – and the way that seems more natural to at least some of us – is to say, for instance, one of the best lovers. That is, there’s a set of people who are the best lovers, and the person in question is one of them. And, indeed, even people who would say or write one of the best lover would, I think, write one of them rather than one of him for short. But because the subject of the sentence is singular, and we have one as well, there’s a certain magnetism of singularity, shall we say. The speaker stays focused on the one person and uses one of the best as though it were a one-of-the-best or a top-quality to modify lover. Frankly, I’d still rather use the plural there – it just makes more sense to me.

Not that many of us are necessarily all that used to hearing the phrase in the
first place.

Make sure to visit Lulu.com to buy Songs of Love and Grammar for the word nerds in your life!

Don’t tell me no lies

For the weekend – and maybe a day or two after – I’ll fill this space with another piece from Songs of Love and Grammar (still available on lulu.com or amazon.com for just $12), about double negatives and negative concord. A friend of mine says he’s thinking of setting this to music. I’ll let you know if he does.

Don’t tell me no lies

I met a little lady from way down south
and I thought she was kinda sweet.
She had a tasty tongue in a cowgirl mouth
that said things you’d wanna repeat.

“I don’t never go for that city stuff –
I like my drinks and men smooth and hard.”
And I said, “Won’t you leave me when you’ve had enough?”
And she said, handing back my credit card,

“I don’t want none of your money, sweet,
I don’t care for no one but you.
I don’t know nothin’ ’bout how to cheat –
that ain’t nothin’ I’d wanna do.”

We had a little drink and we had a little dance
and we painted lots of red on the town,
and pretty soon we had ourselves a fine romance
and I took her out shopping for a gown.

Oh, I bought her a ring, and I bought her a home,
and I got her set up nice and neat.
But sometimes I’d worry she would use me and roam,
and whenever I did, she’d repeat,

“I don’t want none of your money, sweet,
I don’t care for no one but you.
I don’t know nothin’ ’bout how to cheat –
that ain’t nothin’ I’d wanna do.”

So now why am I sittin’ with my head hangin’ low
with nothin’ left, not even pride,
wonderin’ where my sweetheart and my money did go
and how I got took for a ride?

My gal was a master of verbal predation,
a lawyer who took her reward –
she tripped up my ears with double negation
that I thought was negative concord:

“I don’t want none of your money, sweet,
I don’t care for no one but you.
I don’t know nothin’ ’bout how to cheat –
that ain’t nothin’ I’d wanna do.”

The double negative is one thing the prescriptivists won on. English had negative concord for a long time – if you negate one part of a phrase, you negate them all for consistency, just as in some languages you make the adjective feminine if the noun is, for instance. Romance languages still use negative concord. But by the 19th century it was pretty much vanquished in English by appeal to “logic” (rather than appeal to Latin, which actually uses negative concord). And yet in many “nonstandard” versions of English it’s still used – and understood. After all, language doesn’t actually work like math. But the “standard” rules – put in place by the legal class, in fact – are what prevail in law.

Oh, and all those -in’ endings? That’s another thing prescriptivists won on. By the 18th century, the -ing suffix had come to be pronounced as “-in” by everyone (because the tongue is drawn forward by the vowel); rhymes by English poets of the time don’t work with the “ing” version. But the spelling hadn’t changed, and so it was insisted by those who taught the stuff that the ending should be pronounced as written. Nonetheless, while the formal standard has changed, the old way hasn’t been eradicated. By the way, saying “-in” isn’t actually dropping the g; there is no g to drop (ng is just how we write the sound – do you heard a “g” in there? only in words like finger). It’s just fronting the consonant – from the velum (at the back of the mouth) to the alveolar ridge (near the front).

preposition, position

I’ll start this word tasting note with a poem from Songs of Love and Grammar (71 poems with this sensibility, nicely laid out and illustrated, just $12 on lulu.com, or $3.99 for the ebook). It’s about something just about everyone has a position on.

Indecent prepositions

by James Harbeck

I met a buxom grammatician
and said I’d like her out to take;
back she came with proposition:
in let’s stay and out let’s make.

I proceeded with elation
her proposal up to take,
and so prepared my habitation –
out put cat, up bed did make.

In she came and, around stalking,
switfly over she did take
and declared, with eyebrow cocking,
that me over she would make.

Up she tied me then and there
and smoothly off my clothes did take
and while I lay with syntax bare
she with my wallet off did make.

The upshot of my disquisition?
It is how down not to be shaken:
accept indecent preposition
and you might well in be taken.

The poem’s actually a bit of cheat, in that many of the ostensible prepositions are actually parts of phrasal verbs: take out, make out, take up, make up, take over, make over, tie up, take off, make off, shake down, take in. And some of the remainder are really adverbial uses. But I’m not of the disposition to reposition my composition in the face of opposition; the central proposition remains, that such transpositions are unnecessary impositions.

What is a preposition, anyway? It’s not something that pre-positions something as you would, say, a cushion near someone prone to passing out. It just comes before (pre) a noun phrase and says something about the position, physical or conceptual, of the things on either side of the preposition. (Sometimes the following noun phrase is moved and/or deleted. The preposition doesn’t have to move. You may not like it, but you have to put up with it. It’s just something you have to put up with. There is no rule against it, just a common superstition with no basis in actual authoritative usage.)

Oh, for the record, since there are actually many people who think this (some of them giving “answers” at online “answer” forums): is is not a preposition. It’s a verb.

There are also postpositions. The difference between a preposition and a postposition is the position, of course – a postposition comes at the end of a word (or noun phrase), whereas a preposition comes at the beginning. One might say that a postposition is the positron to a preposition’s electron. We don’t have postpositions in English; if we did, we might say things like your head above or this table on rather than above your head or on this table.

But, on the other hand, what postposition and preposition have in common is, of course, position. This word, originating in the Latin positio “act of placing”, which comes from the past participial stem of ponere “put” (which is also the fons et origo of all those words with pose in them, plus some pon words such as exponent), occupies a central position in English – actually a final position in the at least 40 words formed on it, but the point is that, in spite of its obvious morphology (pos+ition), it is effectively a basic word in modern English.

Did I say at least 40 words have the form [x]position? Yep. Here’s a list I’ve made with help from the Oxford English Dictionary:

adposition
anteposition
apposition
circumposition
composition
contraposition
counterposition
decomposition
deposition
disposition
electrodeposition
exposition
extraposition
imposition
indisposition
interposition
juxtaposition
malposition
opposition
out-position
oviposition
photocomposition
postposition
predisposition
preposition
pre-position
presupposition
proposition
recomposition
redeposition
redisposition
reimposition
reposition
retroposition
subterposition
superimposition
superposition
supposition
supraposition
transposition

And then there are all the common collocations of position, among which are these:

starting position
scoring position
geographical position
defensive position
take up position
jostle for position
in position
into position
out of position
sleeping position
fetal position
strong position
favourable position
precarious position
bargaining position
trading position
put you in an awkward position
in a position to help
philosophical position
official position
first position, second position, third position, fourth position, fifth position
privileged position
social position
full-time position, part-time position, salaried position, senior position, junior position
sex position
apply for the position, the position has been filled
in a unique position

Possession may be nine points of the law, but position is a pretty good fraction of the language. In Visual Thesaurus, it’s connected to no fewer than 16 nodes – that’s 16 different valences of meaning, though they’re all connected to the same basic sense of being somewhere. No other word can fill in for it in every position: not place (you may adjust your position in a chair, but not your place), not posture (you can’t ascend to a high posture in an organization), not point or situation or role.

And what position does position take in your mouth? Mostly a frontal one. It starts on the lips, and the other three consonants are on or near the tip of the tongue; of the three vowels, one (the stressed one in the middle) is high front, one is reduced mid central, and the other – the first one – may be a back vowel when given full value, but, like the final vowel, it’s almost always reduced to a neutral mid front-central one or sometimes deleted entirely (“pzishn”). The consonants alternate between voiceless and voiced; the middle two are fricatives, but in slightly different places, one buzzing and one shushing; it ends in the nasal, which also nasalizes the preceding vowel and sometimes pretty much merges with it. (Try this: say “sh” and hold it, and while holding it open your nose and add voice so it’s basically a “n” with the tongue not quite touching the tip – you see how you can shift the sound without really shifting position, if you’re lazy enough.)

And the shape of the word? Eight letters; one descender, one ascender, two dots; almost-mirroring o i io letters. It’s not an especially fast word to write, what with the dots and cross. And yet this borrowing from Latin has become a staple of English – on wordcount.org, which counts frequencies in the British National Corpus, it’s the 395th most common word in the language, just after woman and real and just before centre and south. Pretty decent, eh?

Singular or plural?

The question that comes up every so often among editors has come up again: what do you do in a case such as Fish breed for one stage of their life cycles – or is it Fish breed for one stage of their life cycle?

If that one leaves you feeling uncertain, you’re in great company. Everyone who works with the English language has wondered about that one for ages. Even the style guides are mushy on it. So don’t feel as though somehow there’s a clue space that you’re not in on this one. It’s one of those things that the English language is not suitably designed to handle (another one is Either you or I [are/am] going).

Generally, I think, the leaning is towards using the singular where reasonable. In case like Fish breed for one stage of their life cycle, there is additional justification for this because one could assert that all the fish have the same life cycle in the abstract.

But what do you do with something like They each held a cake in their hands? After all, each person might have the cake in both hands. They each held a cake in their hand is clearer but might sound ugly. Each one held a cake in his hand is a problem if there are males and females, and Each one held a cake in his/her hand is ugly. Best to do something like Each of them held a cake in one hand if you can, or, better, There was a cake in the hand of each of them.

But isn’t it annoying that we should feel the need to shift flow and emphasis just to deal with a syntactic inadequacy of our language!

Going forward, it’s an adverb

A colleague recently asked what part of speech going forward is when used in the annoyingly common way such as Going forward, we’ll do it this way. Here’s what I said:

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